Growing Pecan Trees in the North

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PHOTO: R. DOUGLAS CAMPBELL AND JOHN H. GORDON, JR.
Hardy varieties like this one make growing pecan trees possible in the northern U.S. and southern Canada.

Does the thought of roasted pecans and pecan pies make your
mouth water? Well, here’s some good news for residents of
the northern United States and southern Canada: growing pecan trees may
soon be possible right in your own
back yard!

Although the pecan is usually thought of as a resident of
the Deep South, a few native stands of these noteworthy nut
producers are known to exist along the Missouri River in
north central Missouri and the Mississippi River near
Dubuque, Iowa. Early settlers even reported finding pecans
on the Ohio River as far north as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
But, unfortunately, most of these northern strains have
long since fallen to “civilization.” You can imagine the
excitement, then, when naturalists discovered a few
scattered native trees as far north as southern Wisconsin!

Indian Orchards

Pecan trees (which can live for 500 years) originated in
northern Texas and southern Oklahoma, and were spread along
the canoe-trails of the American Indians. (The word “pecan”
comes from the Indian word paccan : “food which
has to be cracked out of a hard shell”.) These
nuts–once a staple of the Indian diet–were easy to
collect and highly nutritious, stored well, and were good
for barter.

It’s believed that the native Americans planted pecans in
the vicinity of regularly used campsites to provide
“grubstakes” for their descendants. And–since the
Indians preferred to plant the biggest and thinnest-shelled
species–this “cultivation” not only increased the
growing range of the beautiful shade tree but greatly
improved the quality of its nuts as well!

But no one realized just how widely the tree had
actually been spread until recently, when some fine
examples of the “northern” pecan were found hidden away in
the rugged forests of southern Wisconsin and in the
northernmost regions of Iowa and Illinois. These old trees,
which grow as far as 300 miles north of the currently
available northern pecans, make it feasible to adapt the
nut tree to much colder climates than modem growers had
previously thought possible!

A Rare Seed Offer

Members of the Northern Nut Growers Association
(NNGA)–a non-profit group dedicated to the promotion
of nut growing in the north–have already made
exploratory expeditions into this extreme northern range of
the pecan. And, as a result of their efforts, a
“distribution program” of this rare species is being
sponsored as a public service by the NNGA.

You see, it was discovered that the few remaining trees are
located in fertile bottomland immediately adjacent to
rivers–areas that are coveted for the production of
corn. And sadly enough, there is strong pressure to destroy
these remarkable old stands. So not only does
participation in this program offer northern residents the
opportunity to grow some super-tasty nuts, it may also
be the last chance to save and regenerate this hardiest of
northern pecans.

To obtain a packet of eight of the rare seeds, send a $3.00
check (made payable to “NNGA Pecan Seed Program”) to the
Northern Nut Growers Association. (Or, for $8.00, you can join the NNGA. Members
only pay $2.00 for a seed packet, and get a
quarterly newsletter as well and an annual report
chock-full of information on growing northern nut species.)
However, your order must be received by March 20,
1979
in order to be processed in time for the ’79
growing season. That’s just days away … so you’re
going to have to act NOW!

In return for providing the seeds, the NNGA will request
participants in their program to fill out occasional
questionnaires about the performance of the trees over the
next 5 to 20 years.
Complete growing instructions will be sent with each seed
packet, but it should be remembered that seed-grown trees
produce seedlings with a wide range of characteristics. In
previous tests, though, the germination performance has
averaged 60%, and many of the parent trees have survived
winter temperatures as low as -35° F and have ripened
well-filled nuts in seasons as short as 130 frost-free
days.

And–although the nuts of these trees are somewhat
smaller than the “paper-shelled” pecans produced by their
southern cousins–northern pecan kernels are some of
the sweetest known to exist!